Sample 1: Pre-Critique Draft of Major Paper on Class Bias

(A Response to a Scenario Which Seems to Indicate
Some Kind of Class Bias on the Part of a Teacher
from Feinberg, Walter and Soltis, Jonas. School and Society,
New York, New York; Teachers College Press, 1998.)

©2000 Regina Cesario

edited 8/23/11

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The main issue in this case is whether or not the teacher in this account is treating the students who come from poorer backgrounds differently than the students she encounters in her accelerated sections. The evidence as presented by her two colleagues seems to indicate that she is, in fact, treating students differently. Since most teachers enter the profession hoping to help students develop their skills and to become successful in life, why would this teacher do such a thing? More than this, when confronted with data that indicates she is acting in a prejudicial manner, why would she merely dismiss the facts? In real life, one would hope that at the very least this teacher would have a serious discussion with her colleagues to better understand what was happening. Further, one would expect her to do some soul-searching to uncover beliefs and behaviors that might be resulting in devastating outcomes for this specific segment of the school population. This is especially troublesome because by all accounts, she is "considered a fine teacher and has been responsible for the excellent training of hundreds of young people who come from the best families." (Feinberg & Soltis, 1998, p.132)

This teacher, however, does not accept the evidence of her colleagues, nor does she accept their authority to present such information to her. For one thing, these part-time teachers are not certified in English so that this presents a problem with "interpretive authority" whereby they are not viewed as expert (Clabaugh & Rozycki, 1997). If this is the case, then someone else may be needed to intervene and help resolve this dispute, someone whose judgement both parties would respect. This person, perhaps another department member or a principal, might help these teachers determine the criteria by which students are selected for the accelerated classes. If criteria already exist for student placements, perhaps the conflict might be successfully resolved if the criteria are being met. If the conflict persists, there may be other attitudes, feelings, and values underlying the problem.

The teacher, Mrs. Todd, maintains that the students who failed her class either did not have the ability to do the work or they simply did not expend enough effort to achieve her standards. This is not such an unusual belief. One can often hear teachers say they will not lower their standards. Not too long ago, a teacher was dismissed on the grounds of incompetence for failing large numbers of algebra students. This made the national news and the teacher explained her position of expecting high caliber work from her students. If students chose not to work up to those standards, they deserved to fail. What could be wrong with a teacher maintaining high standards? It was interesting that many parents and students showed their support for this teacher. As in this case, they may have been unaware of the subtle "relational and attitudinal" messages leading to failure for certain students (Feinberg & Soltis, 1998).

Perhaps the conflict theorists may provide some insight into this teacherís behavior. According to the conflict theoristsí point of view, the working class needs to identify with the ruling class so that the capitalist system may continue. Without the support of members of the working class, this would not be possible, and more important, the influential members among the working classes might turn on those in power. It becomes important then for workers to share beliefs with the upper classes. Aside from outright repression, the upper classes have found that allowing workers to share in material rewards encourages them to develop a "false consciousness" and thereby helps maintain the capitalist state (Feinberg & Soltis, 1998). Henry Perkinson writes how Carnegie addressed the problem of "surplus wealth" and proposed that "Persons of wealth have an obligation to increase and insure equal opportunity for all." (Perkinson,1995, p.96) In his lifetime, Carnegie gave generously to libraries and other educational institutions.

So, in this case, the teacher of the accelerated students may be identifying with the ruling class and continuing to reproduce the levels of class using her perception of ability as a measure. According to Sennett and Cobb, conservativism of workers, that is, promoting the system that made it possible for them to achieve their present life style is understandable. The irony is that most workers never really get their fair share, yet they defend the existing system. Little background is provided in this case about this teacher, but if she, herself, attained more wealth and status than her parents did, from this perspective, she might be inclined to support the school structure and system as it presently exists.

While Sennett and Cobb agree that "material hardships make people rebel" they do not believe that material rewards alone engage the middle class in defending the existing order. They point to issues of self-worth such as freedom and dignity at the core of such class-related support. After interviewing hundreds of working class individuals, many of whom were immigrants or the children of immigrants, they found these people had difficulty making transitions when they moved up from one class to another. They often felt ambivalent about their success and expressed feelings of inadequacy that had little to do with their ability or performance. Workers who achieved and moved up into new positions felt like imposters because of something Sennett and Cobb call "status incongruity-- being caught between two worlds." What was most disturbing was the way in which they unknowingly acted out these feelings and affected others.

Willisís case of the lads demonstrates very well Sennett and Cobbís premise that the teacher conveys a message that some students "are going to make something of themselves" while others are not. What is insidious is that students passively go along with the teacherís belief and often blame themselves when they are not successful. Again, knowing that most teachers are basically good people, who intend to make a positive mark on society, why would teachers respond in this manner? Sennett and Cobb provide an explanation. They attribute such interactions to the teacherís own feelings of inadequacy and need for "legitimizing the power the teacher holds." (Sennett and Cobb, 1972, p.85) Further, "a teacher needs at least a responsive few in order to feel he has a reason to possess power." (Sennett and Cobb, 1972, p. 86) So, the teacher goes about selecting those "responsive few" usually in an arbitrary way. In the end, the results are a self-fulfilling prophecy -- the responsive few are successful while many others are "treated as an undifferentiated mass." (Sennett and Cobb, 1972, p.261

The teacherís retort also has elements of a functionalistís perspective. She states, "If any student did poorly, it was because they hadnít ability to do the work or were unwilling to put in the effort to succeed." (Feinberg & Soltis, 1998, p.133) In this instance, the teacher seems to be placing emphasis on both the intellectual and cultural impediments to success in her class. She focuses on the lack of ability or native intelligence and well as the unwillingness to work that can be viewed as a lack of discipline from the childís background or culture. Advocates of the functionalist model would agree that different groups would score higher or lower on IQ tests. In this teacherís view, if the students are capable, and they are motivated to work, then they deserve to be in her classroom and they will be rewarded. She does not see this an inconsistent with " the principle of equality of opportunity." (Feinberg & Soltis, 1998, p.32)

The notion of having culture and ability is also studied by Sennett and Cobb. Their premise is that the feelings of inadequacy that we instill in our students and future workers occur because those in power use their own standards to determine whether people have culture and ability or not. Sennett and Cobb tweak this question and present another proposal -- that people within various classes have "different cultures, different values, different developments, different abilities. They say that "this is the ground upon which feelings of inadequacy, as opposed to feelings merely of difference arise." (Sennett and Cobb, 1972, p.270).

Just how do students respond to such treatment, even though they often cannot recognize or express what is happening to them? For one thing, the students who were placed into the accelerated classes might as well have been from a different culture. Since they were familiar with the rules of a given school status, they were unprepared for the rules in their new environment. More than likely, "the rules of the game" and the "hidden curriculum" were greatly different in the accelerated classes than in the heterogeneously grouped classes they previously attended. Faced with this as well an inability to secure the teacherís respect, some students may have simply stopped trying. Students lost the expectation that school would help them so they pulled out of the game. When students become disenfranchised from the group, they tend to band together. Feeling vulnerable, they intentionally break the rules and derive a sense of belonging from this behavior, much as the lads in Willisís study.

The teacherís colleagues from an interpretivist viewpoint addressed the conflict outlined in this case. Dom and Sarah seem to tried to make sense of the situation by interpreting what was happening to their students in their new social context by gathering data. They tried to understand what could be done to help their students learn the rules of the game, but they discovered that another game was being played -- one that from their perspective maintained inequality. While they realized that students could make choices regarding their motivation and degree of effort, they also focused on the messages that the students were receiving. Dom and Sarah attempted to interpret the teacherís attitude toward her students. This consideration of the teacherís attitude in this message is derived from the interpretivist approach. McDermott, however, would offer a word of caution to these colleagues not be too anxious to blame the failure of their students on the teacherís bias. The social situation may indeed be one whereby students themselves participate in ways to avoid "displays of incompetence." Social factors and interactions need to be closely examined.

Although the school grouped students heterogeneously, there was an accelerated track for the most capable students. Our countryís educational system has a history of tracking students. Perkinson (1995) describes racially mixed schools in the fifties that used tracking systems to continue highly segregated programs in spite of legislation to integrate schools. The practice of tracking was expanded and refocused when the Russians launched the Sputnick satellite in 1957. Both government and school officials tried to explain and understand how they failed. They began to look for ways to close the gap by focusing on education and paying close attention to the most talented and gifted students. During this time numerous studies were conducted to research the effects of acceleration and enrichment classes for the gifted and talented in hope of preparing these students as our future scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. This together with the need to educate the large number of baby boomers, resulted in the ability grouping practices that we continue to this day. Ability grouping has been used in public schools as a method to efficiently teach large numbers of students. Some educators use this approach "to narrow the range of performance and motivation in a group of students, thereby making teaching easier and preventing less able students from Ďholding backí those with greater academic talent." (Brewer, Rees, and Argys, 1995, p.210) As a result, tracking became pervasive in both secondary and elementary schools.

"No issue in education touches off more intense feelings than whether, and to what extent, students should be grouped into different classes according to their abilities and probable futures." (The Harvard Education Letter, 1992, p.1) There have been numerous researchers who have painstakingly tried to answer the questions surrounding ability grouping. Several meta-analytic reviews encompassing hundreds of studies have examined research completed on this topic and still there is debate.

The work of Jean Anyon may provide one reason for the conflict over this issue -- tracks appear to coincide with social class. While Anyon studied homogeneous schools, she nevertheless found that the most restricted school -- one that presented repetitious, rote work to children served the working class community thereby preparing these students for the type of work they were expected to do in life. Meanwhile, the "executive elite" school provided many engaging opportunities for students to practice their leadership skills (Feinberg & Soltis, 1998). In similar ways, tracking practices seem to maintain the status quo.

Henry Perkinson suggests that such conflicts about tracking and other highly political matters will never be resolved in our public schools. He states, "These conflicts are politically undecidable, because they stem from strongly held values that many are unwilling to compromise. So any solution proposed to satisfy one group inevitably harms, or threatens the values of some other politically conscious group." (Perkinson, 1995, p. 195) His recommendation is that "we go beyond public schools" and encourage more choice through the private sector (Perkinson, 1995). In this way, parents will be able to select the type of school they think will be more closely aligned with their values.

This author does not agree with this conclusion. While public schools may do a better job of providing choices to parents and students, simply giving up hope that these social conflicts cannot be resolved, seems cynical. By becoming more proficient in our ability to understand and resolve controversy, our students may benefit from a renewed sense of commitment that we are willing to do the hard work of resolving differences and moving forward.


Brewer, D., Rees, D., and Argys, L. Detracking Americaís schools: the reform without Cost? Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 77 No.3, 1995, p. 210.

Clabaugh, Gary K, and Rozycki, Edward, G. Analyzing Controversy: An Introductory Guide. Dushkin/McGraw-Hill, 1997.

Feinberg, Walter and Soltis, Jonas. School and Society, New York, New York; Teachers College Press, 1998.

Perkinson, Henry J. The Imperfect Panacea, Boston, Massachusetts; McGraw Hill Publishers,1995.

Sennett, Richard and Cobb, Jonathan. The Hidden Injuries of Class. New York, New York; Vintage Books a Division of Random House, 1972.

Steinberg, A. The tracking wars: is anyone winning? The Harvard Education Letter, Vol. VIII, Number 3 p.1